Gitlin is the author of ten books, most recently Media Unlimited:
How the Torrent of Image and Sound Overwhelms Our Lives (Metropolitan/Holt,
March 2002). His previous books include The Twilight of Common
Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (Metropolitan
Books/Henry Holt, 1995, and a selection of the Book of the Month
and History Book Clubs), The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of
Rage (Bantam, 1987; revised ed., 1993, and a selection of the
Quality Paperback Book Club), Inside Prime Time (Pantheon,
1983; revised ed. from Routledge, 1994, and University of California
Press, 1999), The Whole World Is Watching (University of
California Press, 1980); and two novels, The Murder of Albert
Einstein (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992, paperback Bantam,
1994), and Sacrifice (Metropolitan/Holt, 1999). His next
book, Letters to a Young Activist, will be published in April
2003 by Basic Books.
He edited Watching Television (Pantheon, 1987). He has published
a book of poems, Busy Being Born (Straight Arrow, 1974);
his poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books,
Yale Review, and The New Republic. He has contributed
to many books and published widely in general periodicals (The
New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco
Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Boston Globe, Dissent,
The Nation, Wilson Quarterly, Harper's, American Journalism Review,
Columbia Journalism Review, The American Prospect, et al.) as
well as scholarly journals. Inside Prime Time received the
nonfiction award of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association; The
Sixties was a finalist for that award and the Robert F. Kennedy
Book Award. The Sixties and The Twilight of Common Dreams
were Notable Books in the New York Times Book Review. He
lectures frequently on culture and politics in the United States
and abroad. He has been a columnist at the New York Observer
and the San Francisco Examiner. He is on the editorial
boards of Dissent and The American Scholar, and is
also the North American editor of opendemocracy.net.
He holds degrees from Harvard University, the University of Michigan,
and the University of California, Berkeley. He was the third president
of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1963-64, and coordinator
of the SDS Peace Research and Education Project in 1964-65, during
which time he helped organize the first national demonstration against
the Vietnam War. During 1968-69, he was an editor and writer for
the San Francisco Express Times, and wrote for the underground
press. He was for sixteen years a professor of sociology and director
of the mass communications program at the University of California,
Berkeley. During 1994-95, he held the chair in American Civilization
at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He
has been a resident at the Bellagio Study Center in Italy and the
Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California, and a fellow at the
Media Studies Center. He is now a professor of journalism and sociology
at Columbia University.
First, thanks for taking the time for this interview, Todd. At SolPix
we're trying to promote alternative, intelligent voices in the media
world, and you are certainly one of the most intelligent and interesting
voices out there discussing media trends.
reading your book Media
Unlimited I was struck how much of the media torrent you
discuss has become such a "given" to so many people -- as if we
naturally accept the media frenzy as somehow a requirement of progress.
Why do you think more people don't question how media is evolving
and just seem to accept it?
Human inertia makes the everyday environment, the furniture,
as it were, appear to be a given. If you buy a new sofa, you will
notice it every time you walk into the room. By the twentieth or
fiftieth time you walk into the room, you won't see it anymore.
If you move to a house with a striking view, ditto -- eventually,
you take the view for granted. Add the fact that people get a lot
of rewards from media, so why should they question something that
offers regular (if tainted) benefits along with irritations?
One of the more compelling statements in your book (I'm paraphrasing
here) has to do with how the media frenzy tends to gloss over important
issues and makes it easier for "oligarchs" to maintain control.
Do you have any evidence that this is a willful strategy on anyone's
I don't think anyone in the media thinks strategically about society.
The moguls are driven by their respective desires for profit --
period. The groupings that make corporate decisions have tunnel
I also sometimes wonder if think tanks perceive media trends and
then put out position papers on how corporations and others can
effectively manipulate these trends to get the public to support
Again, the only trends that interest the corporate boys and girls
are demographic and businesslike. I doubt the think tank reports
interest them much.
After reading your book, I think maybe we need to replace the
term "information is power" with "navigation is power." It's almost
as if the skills an individual needs to navigate, self edit and
digest the media torrent dictate both their ability to cope with
it and their relative success in society.
Navigation is power of a limited sort -- it enables us to manage
the immensity of the media torrent. But this sort of defensive power
should not be confused with substantial social power. Collectively,
we are in thrall to media -- because they deliver to us many of
the psychic goods we crave, and we know no other way to live.
You make pains to note that the global dominance of American popular
culture is by no means done at gunpoint. A lot of people in a lot
of countries seem to viscerally gravitate toward American pop culture
and willingly give up their traditions, or at least learn to co-exist.
Why is this?
Like Americans, people outside America want fun, want an emotional
compensation for the utilitarianism and calculation that mark the
rest of their lives. Americas are, for a variety of reasons, the
most adept at producing the kind of entertainment that delivers
easy satisfactions. American movies and music deliver themes of
freedom, innocence, and power that appeal to others -- partly because
America itself was put together out of a multiplicity of national
traditions. So American culture is itself a hybrid and lends itself
to use in other people's hybrids.
You talk about how the media torrent may reach a natural limit --
meaning the human brain has natural limits above which it cannot
speed up processing of information. This leads me to think that
eventually there may be augmentation of human beings with technology
such as implants or sensors to make them more effective in assimilating
all the information, and that this will be seen by some as giving
them a competitive advantage. The point is that it seems to me that
some of the trends in the media and technology lead us away from
human values and toward the values of the machine, where precision,
timeliness, speed and all the qualities of the machine become paramount
and eventually in many ways replace uniquely human values such as
empathy, patience, compassion, and so on... human values that come
from human reality. Any comments?
The sci-fi cyborg possibilities (or "augmentations") are pretty
appalling -- and, as you sketch them, pretty alluring to a society
that has already gone far to befriend, and psychically to become,
the machine. You outline the prospect well, and I'm sure a lot of
people will be buying.
Sometimes I think that the media torrent has to do with control
of nature, to provide an alternative to nature, a self-optimizing
economic organism from which we cannot escape. It's as if this self-optimizing
machine wants me to conform to it fully, and in the bargain I'm
paid off -- I'm a comfortable consumer. Should we worry about the
ultimate corruption of American society because of this... that
we become essentially well paid accomplices to the top few who really
benefit from the whole economic organism?
When people gravitate to the media torrent, it's not in order to
surrender to the economic machine, it's in order to indulge our
feelings and sensations. It's for fun, in other words. The genius
of the economic machine is in its ability to convert these indulgences
into profitability. It converts desire into attention, a grip on
our eyeballs and eardrums, which in turn can be marketed to advertisers.
The resulting corruption of values is far advanced, but to fathom
its hold, we have to understand that people have surrendered for
the sake of their own benefits -- not in order to line the pockets
of the moguls, though there is no massive objection to lining those
pockets in the process.
Do you think that the media torrent seeks to create a chronic desire
in people -- a chronic dissatisfaction that fuels economic activity
The manufacture of desire isn't at the heart -- if it isn't absurd
to speak of a heart -- of the media torrent. Chronic dissatisfaction
is at the heart of the matter. The desire isn't injected hypodermically
into people's hearts and brains; there's a loop, hooking together
people's desires with the projects of the attention-getting industries.
But don't think that this loop began when television began, or radio,
or Hollywood. There's a longer history in play, a history of individualism
in the West that's now a couple of centuries old, and more.
Your book it seems to me provides a framework for people seeking
to understand the media torrent, but it also seems you really don't
discuss an alternative vision of what media can be.
I have no action plan, and as a writer I don't want to get hung
up on the advantages and disadvantages of particular strategies.
That's the business of people speaking together. My business is
the analytical framework. As I write at the end, if we step back
and face the enormity of the torrent, then we have taken the first
step to imagining what we might want to do about it.
In your book you detail some of your resistance to the first Gulf
War. The current War on Terror, particularly as we move against
Iraq, in some ways mirrors what happened during the previous Bush
administration. What do you see as differences and similarities
in the current situation to where we were at prior to the first
I've been writing about the impending Gulf War and the opposition
to it in a number of articles, mainly at Motherjones.com, where
I write a monthly column. The current situation is quite different
than in 1990-91. Then, Saddam Hussein had obviously committed national
aggression on Kuwait. Now, there is no evident threat from Saddam
Hussein -- and in any case, nothing requiring preemption. Opposing
this war (and preemption generally) needs to be sensitive to the
difference. On the other hand, the antiwar movement needs to take
seriously the fact that there are terrorists hell-bent on destroying
Americans. What would be a liberal program for combating terrorism?
The peace movement is ducking this question, but it will refuse
to be ducked.
You elaborated on an incident during the Gulf War where a journalist
took an interview with you out of context and you wound up looking
like you supported the war instead of opposing it. Have you been
misrepresented a lot in the media?
Sure, I've often been misrepresented --anyone frequently quoted
has this experience. Most of the misrepresentations are a result
of compression. The reporter is interested strictly in his or her
question, often a simplistic one, and your answers, if complex,
get freeze-dried and reduced, crammed into the slot that the reporter/correspondent
(and editor/producer) have laid out in advance. My Gulf War experience
was unusual for me -- and I've kept it that way. Since 1991, I've
refused to do taped or filmed network news sound bites, for precisely
the reason I explain in the book. I first came to think about media
and politics in the late 1960s, having observed some distortions
up close, but since then I wouldn't say that my personal experience
has remained an important motive for my writing about media.
I know your working on a new book. Can you preview a little about
what it's about and when it will be published?
The new book is Letters to a Young Activist, to be published
by Basic Books in April 2003. It's informed advice about how to
go about changing the world -- ethical considerations, strategies,
state of mind, big questions.
this article on the nextPix FORUM by going to its discussion
THE TORRENT, the article by Todd Gitlin published last year
on the SolPix site:
MEDIA UNLIMITED, the book by Todd Gitlin referenced in this
Copyright Web del Sol, 2003